For Entertainment Purposes: An Interview With Sheila Heti

Emily Berry speaks to the Canadian author about her latest novel, How Should A Person Be?, criticism and praise for her work and the role of shame in her writing

How Should a Person Be?, the latest book by Canadian author Sheila Heti, was released in the UK earlier this year. Her previous books (including a novel, a collection of short stories and a children’s book) were well-received but did not draw the same international attention as HSAPB?, which has been hailed by some as her ‘breakthrough novel’. This inevitably says less about the quality of any of the books than about our particular cultural moment; much has been made of the fact that HSPAB? attracted endorsements from Lena Dunham and Miranda July (though praise from Margaret Atwood and the New Yorker’s James Wood also appear on the back of the UK edition), leading to comparisons with Dunham’s HBO series Girls. In fact the book received a similar response to that TV series, with some critics applauding its boldness and originality and others dismissing it as shamelessly narcissistic.

Described in the Guardian as ‘a mashup of memoir, fiction, self-help and philosophy’, HSAPB? features a protagonist named Sheila based on the author and supporting characters based on her friends. With some scenes (we assume) drawn from real life and others created ‘for entertainment purposes’, it’s almost the literary equivalent of ‘dramality’ TV – indeed Heti has named American reality TV show The Hills as an influence on the book. The Independent’s reviewer said reading HSAPB? was ‘like listening in to someone gossip on public transport’, just barely admitting that there might be some positives to such an experience – and the book does feature genuine email exchanges and transcriptions of conversations Heti had with friends. As it happens Heti is now involved with the Miranda July project We Think Alone, a weekly mail-out which gives those who sign up a voyeuristic glimpse into the sent mail folders of Heti, Dunham and Kirsten Dunst, among others. Heti’s first sent email (on the theme of ‘money’, but from 2009, tellingly) was a candid discussion of her finances. We Think Alone explores changing conceptions of privacy; as July states on the project’s website, ‘Radical self-exposure and classically manicured discretion can both be powerful’. They are also not mutually exclusive. Similarly, in HSPAB?, what can seem recklessly exposing is at the same time knowing and artful.

HSPAB? is far from plot-driven but it has several key strands, including an ‘Ugly Painting Competition’ between two characters in which the task is to create the ugliest painting possible; the friendship between Sheila and her best friend Margaux (based on Heti’s real-life friend, artist Margaux Williamson), which is nearly destroyed over an incident in which Sheila buys the same dress as Margaux; and Sheila’s relationship with a sexually domineering man named Israel. Hardcore submission is a common theme in contemporary women’s writing (Marie Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life being another recent example) but when I attempt to ask Heti about HSAPB?’s confrontational sex scenes, she says only that she is ‘a little tired of defending the idea that a woman might enjoy sex with someone who is not “a very nice man”’. In our email interview she sounds weary of answering questions altogether.

The problem with writing a book and the book being a success is that you are then expected to go out into the world and say things about it. When I was considering what to ask Heti, I looked up other interviews she’d done. There were so many that it began to seem that there was not a single question about HSABP? she hadn’t already been asked (and answered) multiple times. So if she is feeling ‘a little tired’, who can blame her.

At the beginning of the book Sheila says ‘My hope is to live a simple life… by a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in. I don’t want anything to change, except to be as famous as one can be, but without that changing anything.’ How much do you identify with this sentiment? How do feel about all the publicity around book, and being thrown into the spotlight yourself?

Sheila Heti: My experience of being ‘in the world’ as a result of the book’s reception has made me feel rather dirty. It’s a very dirtying, messy thing to be portrayed a lot by other people, to have one’s book be written about, for people who have never met you to have opinions about you. In the book Sheila speculates that it would feel like being covered in gold, being an idol, but to whatever extent I’ve experienced it so far, it more feels like being soiled. Being in public is an embarrassing thing. It feels like walking through a muggy city on a too-hot summer day, with the traffic all around you, and all the particles of exhaust stuck to your hair and face and skin, and you get home and all you want is a shower.

I wondered about the role of shame in the book. At one point Sheila goes to the the toilet at a party and decides ‘I would only write about what I thought about as I shit’, then says ‘I hated the thought that when I opened the door I would reveal to everyone the shittiness that was mine’. It seems that experiences of shame or being shamed are particularly common in representations of women (or responses to them) in contemporary culture – is this something you’ve thought about much?

SH: Not as much as I’ve thought about other things. Margaux once said all her female writer friends feel like ‘bad’ people and that when she, Margaux, started writing publicly, she began to feel the same way. She wondered if there was perhaps a way in which a woman who speaks publicly is always going to be shamed somehow, by the world. Like a witch. That good women don’t speak.

The book appears to critique the contemporary obsession with self-image and self-representation – ‘it is cheating to treat oneself as an object, or as an image to tend to, or as an icon’ – do you think about this in relation to how you interact publicly? Do you worry about ‘brand Sheila Heti’?

SH: All I can say is that I’m always deleting my Twitter account, always deleting my Facebook account, and then always starting them up again. I am not sure that I worry about my ‘brand’ for this is a word that I don’t think about in terms of myself (or any human really) but I do oscillate between the desire to be interacting with others in these spaces and the desire to be private and have nothing to do with them.

There has been a lot of very positive feedback on the book, but some critics have described it as ‘self-absorbed’ or ‘narcissistic’ – how have you responded to such reviews?

SH: There’s two things there: the character’s narcissism, vs the book’s narcissism. I don’t think a book can be ‘narcissistic’ – that’s a characteristic of a person – and an artist should not be accused of narcissism apart from by the people who know them and could honestly judge. But it’s fair to accuse a character of that if that’s what you perceive in the character. In a lot of the criticism where that word is used, I’m not sure if the critics know what they’re talking about: me, the book, the character, this culture, or what.

I wondered if you were making a statement with the choice of Israel’s name, considering the type of character he is. Or if it was simply one of the many references in the book to Jewish themes. Do you see the book as political at all?

SH: Every book is political.

The book is divided into ‘acts’ and one feature of the plot is Sheila’s failure to write the play she has been commissioned to write: what is your relationship to theatre and what relationship do you feel the book has to theatre?

SH: There is something embarrassing about a play. I always feel sorry for the actors, because nobody believes them, they’re so obviously acting. And we’re supposed to believe, usually. In a movie there’s a bit more hope for suspension of disbelief. I like the idea of theatre – something happening in a space with other people, that only happens once, and is different on every night. But that’s also true of any artform, because you’re always encountering it in time – I mean at a specific moment in your life, and if you read the book a few years later, it’s a different book. But that fact is the most important thing about theatre, which is beautiful.

I enjoyed your use of transcribed conversations and emails. With any writer who spends time communicating, so much time and energy goes into emailing, texting, etc that it seems some of the real material must be there too – how did this process develop for you?

SH: I can’t remember, but I agree: it’s true that one spends a lot of time writing emails, and some of us spend much more time writing emails than doing any other kind of writing. Maybe it’s ‘real’ writing, too, or could be. Perhaps there’s important stuff in emails. Why is the writing we do ‘for ourselves’ which we secret away until it’s ‘ready’ be privileged over the writing we do for other people, for our friends, that we send off with happiness and excitement, often?

There is an increasing tendency for writers to use material ‘found’ or sourced from elsewhere – since much of your material is ‘repurposed’, do you feel you have complete ownership over the book? Are those whose conversations you transcribed happy to consider it completely yours?

SH: Of course I have complete ownership over the book and over the transcriptions. I decided to record at certain moments, I transcribed, I chose which ones to include, I edited them. I made the book. Now the book belongs to the world, though, and probably anyone can do whatever they want with it. But that doesn’t mean the book is not also mine. I don’t know if my friends feel like the conversations are theirs, or mine, or shared. It has never come up.

A lot of responses to the book have talked about it ‘speaking to the contemporary moment’. Do you think it’s possible to truly write about one’s own ‘moment’ while in it, i.e. to be both insider and outsider?

SH: I do think one can write about one’s own time, probably that’s the only thing one can write about, because one is one’s own time. You don’t even have to think about it. You just are it.

How Should A Person Be? is out now, published by Harvill Secker

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